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The history of labor organizing in Minnesota

Since statehood, Minnesota workers have joined together to improve and protect their livelihoods, rights, and voices in the workplace.

In an unprecedented show of support, union members across the nation showed up to protest alongside striking Local P-9 at the Hormel plant in Austin in 1986.
In an unprecedented show of support, union members across the nation showed up to protest alongside striking Local P-9 workers at the Hormel plant in Austin in 1986.
Minnesota Historical Society/Minneapolis Star Tribune negatives collection

Since statehood, Minnesota workers have joined together to improve and protect their livelihoods, rights, and voices in the workplace.

Early Minnesota labor organizations

Throughout history, people in Minnesota have made a living in a variety of ways, including subsistence farming, hunting and gathering, trade, and managing businesses. This article focuses on the circumstances and activism of commercial farmers and people working for wages.

The model for American unions came together in the late 1850s. The organization had a centralized national body with regional or particular workplace “locals” maintained by members’ dues. Members elected leaders to negotiate with employers and see that agreements were honored. Unions also reserved funds to support members in case of a strike.

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St. Paul tailors went on the state’s first recorded strike in 1854, though its outcome and the group’s longevity are unknown. The city’s printers formed the state’s first ongoing union in 1856. They joined the National Typographers Union in 1858 and gained newspaper owners’ recognition, inspiring locals to start in other Minnesota cities.

In the 1860s, members of Minnesota’s ethnic groups, such as Germans, Finns, and those of the Jewish community, joined working men’s societies and mutual benefit associations to provide insurance for accidents, sickness, and death, and to find jobs for members. These organizations’ halls, like the Jewish Labor Lyceum and Workmen’s Circle in Minneapolis, became hubs of community and political activity.

Unions also served as social centers. In the early 1900s, Casiville Bullard and his fellow bricklayers had regular Sunday picnics together, and many unions held dances. Every Labor Day from 1900 to 1910, 30,000 people gathered for a parade through St. Paul and a picnic on Harriet Island.


Unions found it necessary to form associations to counter the power of employer groups, such as the national oil and steel trusts. Unions also needed to coordinate efforts, share resources, and settle disagreements about which workers each union would represent. The overlapping histories of four primary federations provide an overview of Minnesota labor’s changing circumstances, goals, obstacles, and opportunities.

St. Paul union leaders founded the state’s first federation, the Workingmen’s Association Number One of the United States, in 1873. Members, including both wage earners and employers, lobbied for laws and public building projects. The organization’s president became a leader in the Knights of Labor.

The Knights of Labor was founded in Philadelphia as a secret organization in 1869. It became a national alliance, open to women and African Americans, though it backed legislation barring Chinese immigration. Members included small business owners as well as workers.

The Knights opposed business monopolies, banks, liquor retailers, and lawyers, whom the alliance viewed as controlling money and restricting opportunities for other Americans. The Knights supported cooperatives to give workers and local communities more power over their livelihoods.

The first Minnesota branch was founded in 1878 in Minneapolis. Assemblies in St. Paul, Duluth, and other Minnesota cities got started during the 1880s. Knights of Labor Minnesota membership reached 10,000 by 1886, and the federation nominated candidates for state office.

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Few of the Knights’ candidates were elected. Many of the alliance’s goals, however, were taken up by later activists, adopted by other political parties, and eventually enacted. A state labor bureau was in place by the 1890s. Child labor, however, did not end until 1909, and the eight-hour day did not become law until 1938.

While the Knights avoided striking, they backed three successful railroad walkouts. Eugene Debs led the 1894 strike by Great Northern Railroad workers who won concessions from St. Paul’s “Empire Builder,” James J. Hill. Police and military troops defeated following strikes. The railways had monopoly control over shipping costs, reducing producers’ and workers’ incomes. The companies were thus a focus of farmer, labor, and progressive political activists’ rage and calls for reform until the 1930s.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) gradually displaced the Knights of Labor. The AFL was founded in 1886 by 25 national craft unions, including printers, machinists, and building trades. It represented “skilled” trades that had their roots in medieval European guilds.

The Minnesota state AFL was established in 1890. The national AFL leadership emphasized pay and working conditions over broader social issues. Minnesota’s AFL, however, advocated for state inspections of mines and factories, free textbooks for all children, and state ownership of railroad, telegraph, and telephone systems.

Most of the Minnesota building trade unions were chartered by the AFL between the 1880s and the early 1900s. Tradesmen, like bricklayers and carpenters, earned enough to build or buy homes. Unorganized laborers, men and women alike, earned much less.

Rejecting the AFL’s structure and political orientation, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded in 1905 with the goal of overthrowing capitalism by joining all workers into “one big union.” The IWW rejected nativism. Many organizers and members were foreign-born. To represent otherwise unorganized farm workers, the IWW founded the Agricultural Workers Organization, which grew to more than 20,000 members by 2016.

The IWW was active in Minnesota’s 1916 Mesabi Iron Range and 1916 and 1917 timber workers’ strikes. These walkouts and other actions were violently defeated by company security agents, police, and sometimes state militia, though working conditions did improve after these conflicts. The IWW lost strength after arrests and deportations following World War I, though the organization’s ideas continue to influence labor activists.

In the IWW spirit, meatpacking workers in Austin, together with restaurant, department store, and other workers, formed the International Union of All Workers in 1933. The union won the nation’s first sit-down strike at the Hormel plant. The victory inspired labor activists throughout Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska.

During the Great Depression, the AFL mainly represented higher paid workers with expertise in a particular trade and was generally hostile to “unskilled workers.” This orientation alienated activists seeking to unite workers doing a variety of jobs, like those in mines and factories. One faction broke away from the AFL in 1935 to become the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO).

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CIO organizers collaborated with workers, including women and people of color, in workplaces that most federations had ignored. The timber workers’ union of northern Minnesota joined the CIO and won two strikes in 1937. Employees at the Ford plant in St. Paul joined the CIO’s United Auto Workers fight to unionize auto manufacturing.

The nation’s largest wave of strikes occurred in 1946. Business supporters in Congress reacted by restricting unions’ tactics and power through policies and legislation, especially the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. The law banned such effective union tactics as sympathy strikes and mandated financial and political reporting. It also permitted states to pass “right-to-work” laws that allowed employees to opt out of joining and paying dues to their workplace unions (a legislative trend Minnesota has resisted). To meet these challenges, the two national federations merged into the AFL-CIO in 1955.

Some unions were independent of federations, like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Founded in 1919, it was not recognized by the AFL until 1937. Frank Boyd of St. Paul was a leader in the union, which advanced both the economic rights and civil rights of African American workers.

Labor media and the arts

The arts have played an important role in reflecting and reinforcing worker’s experience and identities. Labor halls, such as the Socialist Opera House in Virginia and the Mesaba Co-op Park near Hibbing, presented plays and musical performances. The federal Works Progress Administration supported many types of artists and writers to collect and tell workers’ stories in print and in plays. Music has been a unifying and inspiring force in marches and on picket lines. (“Solidarity Forever,” the IWW song written by Ralph Chaplin in 1915, is still sung at union gatherings and actions.)

Media, especially newspapers, have also been critical to the labor movement in Minnesota. Labor federation publications report otherwise neglected union-related news. They promote working people’s perspectives on issues of the day in an environment of indifference or open hostility toward unions by commercial publications. Websites and social media have become important means of internal and external communication.

The business-labor balance shifts

The widespread unemployment and poverty of the Great Depression called into question the political and economic dominance of employers. Unions and other worker organizations, which had been suppressed in the 1910s and 1920s, gained power during the 1930s and 1940s.

Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party elected candidates from 1922 until its merger with the Democrats in 1944. Earlier administrations sent troops to suppress strikes. Farmer-Labor Governors Floyd B. Olson and Elmer Benson participated personally to settle strikes through negotiations. Benson even opened the Duluth Armory to shelter striking timber workers.

The Citizens Alliance had prevented union organizing in Duluth and Minneapolis by rewarding businesses that opposed unions and threatening to boycott and withhold credit from companies that negotiated with workers. The Teamsters union challenged the alliance’s grip in Minneapolis through a successful coal drivers’ strike in the early months of 1934 and the bloody truckers’ strike the following spring.

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National Labor Relations Act

The scale and violence of the Minneapolis strike, together with labor battles in San Francisco, California, and Toledo, Ohio, pushed Congress to pass the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935. The NLRA established the national legal framework for recognizing unions and collective bargaining between employers and unions that exists today. The National Labor Relations Board was established to oversee union elections and enforce rules against unfair labor practices by employers or unions. This legal support, together with the CIO’s inclusive organizing approach, led to labor gains. By 1964, unions represented 37% of Minnesota’s workers — an all-time high.

NLRA protections did not cover independent contractors and supervisors. It also excluded agricultural, domestic, and public workers. Not until much later did people in these jobs gain collective bargaining power.


Farmers, like Nellie Stone Johnson‘s father, William Allen, brought food into town to feed striking workers in the 1930s. He could identify with their fight. Frustrated with underpayments for his milk by commercial processors, Allen was a leader in forming a cooperative creamery in Minneapolis. Since the mid-1800s, farmers founded producer cooperatives to eliminate the middlemen and earn more for their work.

Farmers also organized groups like the Grange and Nonpartisan League to influence public policy. The League spread to Minnesota and laid the groundwork for the Farmer-Labor Party.

After World War I, land values and prices for farm products fell. Unable to pay mortgages and loans, many farm families faced an agricultural depression and foreclosure. The Farmers’ Holiday Association grew out of the Farmers Union in 1932. Members took collective action to boost prices by holding back or destroying farm produce. They also held rallies and “penny auctions” to counteract foreclosures.

Left out of NLRB protections, laborers on farms have been vulnerable to exploitation. Minnesota passed laws to include farm workers under minimum wage, overtime, and other protections. Workers isolated on farms and dependent on employers for a place to live, however, often didn’t know their rights or couldn’t assert them.

In 1999, migrant farm workers and allies formed Centro Campesino, (Farmworkers Center) in Owatonna to provide education about migrant workers’ rights and develop leaders. The center’s members challenge wage theft and poor working conditions by individual employers and lobby for laws and enforcement.

Public employees

Minnesotans working for state, county, and city governments began organizing in the 1860s. They became national leaders in gaining recognition of their unions and securing better pay and working conditions for public employees.

In 1861, educators founded the organization that became the Minnesota Education Association (MEA). The Minnesota Federation of Teachers (MFT) and the MEA successfully advocated for teaching standards and such school improvements as libraries. They lacked the ability to negotiate legally binding agreements to improve teachers’ pay and workplace rights.

Frustrated with deteriorating classrooms and a lack of such basic materials as textbooks, St. Paul teachers staged the nation’s first teachers’ strike in 1946. The walkout gained national attention and embarrassed public officials into negotiating with the strikers. Though the strike was illegal, the teachers won many of their goals and kept their jobs.

Minneapolis teachers walked off the job in 1970, spurring passage of the 1971 Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA). One of the nation’s strongest government workers’ labor laws, it provides for the right to bargain and to strike.

On Sept. 1, 1998, the MFT and MEA merged to become one of the state’s largest unions and the first state union to be affiliated with both of the major national teachers’ labor organizations.

Minnesota water, clerical, and other public workers began organizing in 1919 to fight party patronage hiring practices. The locals merged into the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in the 1930s. Minnesota AFSCME Councils and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE) have led several statewide strikes, beginning in 1981. The unions have successfully lobbied for public services and improvements to facilities where they work.

Labor advances

The Minnesota labor movement achieved many legislative gains in the 1970s. A state minimum wage law was enacted. The state Occupational Safety and Health Act (MNOSHA) was passed in 1973 to supplement the 1970 federal OSHA.

One of the most celebrated strikes in Minnesota history began in 1977 when eight women in Willmar went on the first bank strike in American history, seeking fair treatment in pay and promotions. The “Willmar 8” did not gain union recognition and most lost their jobs. Yet their nearly two-year-long walkout inspired women across the country and brought about changes in hiring and promotion practices in banking and other industries.

Anti-union trends

President Ronald Reagan fired striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981 and permanently replaced them, citing a seldom used law. The PATCO firing marked a shift in federal policies toward unions that triggered more aggressive anti-union practices by private employers. Unions facing permanent loss of members’ jobs found strikes to be a less useful bargaining tool.

Appointment of more business-friendly members to the National Labor Relations Board made it more difficult to stop employers’ anti-union practices and to win union recognition elections. Union membership declined steadily to a low of 14% in Minnesota by 2012.

In 1986, Local P9 lost a long strike at the Austin Hormel plant. The loss accelerated the erosion of middle-class livelihoods that meatpacking industry workers won since 1933.

In 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested more than 230 undocumented workers from the Swift meatpacking plant in Worthington. Unions aided the workers’ families. Later that year, unionists were among 40,000 people who marched in St. Paul, the largest rally in Minnesota history, to call for immigrant rights.

Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE) protests in St. Paul stopped the deportation of undocumented Holiday Inn Express union negotiators in 1999. The action prompted the AFL-CIO to shift from its anti-immigrant position to active support of undocumented workers.

Labor adapts and innovates

Workers evolved alternative tactics and organizations in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries to adapt to harsher labor–management relations and more restrictive NLRB rulings. For example, some employers avoided costs by classifying workers as “independent contractors,” not covered by the NLRA and state labor laws.

Corporations contracted out jobs like cleaning and security to subcontractors, who had to bid against one another. The practice allowed larger companies to pay less for services and distance themselves from the budget-squeezed subcontractors’ treatment of employees. Pay dropped and conditions worsened for many subcontracted jobs in the Twin Cities.

To address this “race to the bottom” dynamic, the Workers Interfaith Network began the workers’ center that became Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (Center of Workers United in Struggle) in 2007. CTUL recovered more than two million dollars in unpaid wages and damages from individual employers. The group sought systemic change through rallies, walkouts, a hunger strike, lobbying, and negotiating with the larger companies who contracted with CTUL members’ employers in big-box stores.

In 2014, after four years of protests and meetings with CTUL and worker members, Target adopted a Responsible Contractor Policy for subcontractors — the first such agreement in the country’s cleaning industry. It provided for the right to organize without retaliation. Workers went on to join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26 and bargain contracts with the majority of Twin Cities retail janitorial companies.

By foregoing the difficult NLRB process required to authorize a union and bargain with an employer, worker centers like CTUL have had more flexibility in dealing with businesses. In 2013, the Minnesota AFL-CIO helped start the Greater Minnesota Workers Center in St. Cloud, which notably serves East African and other immigrant packinghouse workers.

Independent and part-time workers have created mutual aid organizations to counter the power imbalance between individuals and large companies. These groups, such as the Freelancers Union, empower members by sharing information and resources.

Traditional unions have also developed new strategies and revived old tactics. HERE Local 17 revived the sit-down strike in local hotels, sparking more widespread civil disobedience in Minnesota labor campaigns. Workers at Jimmy John’s sandwich shops renewed the IWW model to organize in the high-turnover fast-food sector. They faced intense employer antagonism and lost a 2010 election by just two votes.

In 2014, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota won the largest union election in state history to represent 26,000 personal care attendants (PCAs) who provide in-home health services. The victory provided a way for PCAs, usually working in isolation, to bargain together with the state about pay and conditions.

The 15 Now coalition adopted a model used in Seattle to raise area wages by focusing initially on the regional airport. The Twin Cities group built on the momentum of airport gains and a growing national movement to win a $15 an hour minimum wage in Minneapolis in 2017, the first in the Midwest. St. Paul followed in 2018.

The 2018 Janus US Supreme Court decision ended dues requirements for all government employees in the country. The ruling was expected to be a big blow to labor, as public workers are more highly unionized than those in private jobs. In Minnesota, 54% of government employees were union members versus 9% of the private labor force, as of 2017. After intensified organizing efforts, however, the number of dues-paying public union members did not drop significantly, and AFSCME’s membership increased in Minnesota by 2019.

Employer practices and government policies continue to change, both challenging and boosting the ability of labor organizations to represent their members. Workers continue to find ways to have a voice in their workplaces and in society.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.